Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia was in the middle of a TV interview Monday about student lunch debt in his district when the email arrived.
The message from an anonymous donor said she wanted to help with families’ unpaid accounts. Later Monday morning, she sent a $10,000 check to the superintendent’s office. That would erase more than half of the debt students have accrued in Westbrook this year.
“I’m not speechless often, and it was one of those moments,” Lancia said.
Money owed on student lunch accounts often adds up in school districts around the country. As the end of the school year approaches in Westbrook, that debt is nearly $17,000. Lancia said that number is high, although not unusual compared with past years, but the issue received more attention this year because of reports in the American Journal and other news outlets.
The donor did not want to be identified, Lancia said. He was still not sure how the district would allocate the donation between the unpaid accounts. In Westbrook, lunch is more expensive than breakfast, and a meal at the high school is slightly more expensive than at other schools. Lunch at the elementary or middle schools costs $2.30, so $10,000 is equivalent to more than 4,300 meals at that level.
“I know this will relieve a very significant amount of the overall debt,” Lancia said.
“We provide, oftentimes, the only stable meal for the day, the only guarantee for a meal, so I think this person just wanted to show her belief in kids and recognize that there are kids in need,” he said. “She was able to help them, and I am just really grateful she was able to do that.”
Nationally, fundraising drives or donations in other states have helped pay down school lunch accounts. Last year, a social media campaign helped erase thousands of dollars in debts in Minnesota, Kansas and other states.
Some Maine students are eligible for free or reduced breakfasts and lunches based on their household income and federal poverty guidelines. Lancia said roughly 60 percent of Westbrook students receive free or reduced-cost lunch, higher than the statewide average of 47 percent. But those who are required to pay can’t always afford to, he said.
“We want children to eat,” Lancia said. “We feed kids, and we settle the bills with parents later.”
At the elementary and middle schools, students continue to receive the daily lunch even if their account is in the red. At the high school, students are allowed to charge two meals beyond their account balance, and then they cannot receive lunch until they address their debt.
Lancia said the district reaches out to families that are in debt to discuss applications for free and reduced lunches, or to set up a payment plan. For the remaining balance, Lancia said Westbrook receives other donations from individuals and community organizations, and the district often has to find a way to eat the remaining cost.
“We have a lot of people who are living paycheck to paycheck, and they may not be able to make every end meet,” Lancia said.
Veronica Bates, a member of the Westbrook School Committee and chairperson of its finance committee, said she makes an annual plea to parents on social media at this time of year to settle their accounts or talk to the district about free and reduced lunch. The district protects the privacy of students who receive free or reduced-cost meals, she said, and there is no shame for those who ask for help.
Bates said she was in disbelief when she heard about the donation through the superintendent. She first assumed the five-figure number was an error. For some parents, she predicted this money could be “a godsend.”
“Every time I say it, I get goosebumps,” she said. “I cannot express my gratitude enough.”
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